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Book Review – Enter at Your Own Risk: Fires and Phantoms

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The cover artwork for Enter at Your Own Risk: Fires and Phantoms, edited by Dr. Alex Scully.
The cover artwork for Enter at Your Own Risk: Fires and Phantoms, edited by Dr. Alex Scully.

Enter at Your Own Risk: Fires and Phantoms is the second installment in editor Dr. Alex Scully’s horror anthology series to be published by local indy press Firbolg Publishing. The common thread running through the tales this time around is homosexuality, which may turn away some potential readers, but it should be noted that Dr. Scully manages to avoid the common editorial pitfall of pounding the reader over the head with her anthology’s thematic linkage at every turn by including a diverse selection of stories ranging from ones in which LGBTQ-ness is central to the plot to others in which it is merely implied.

Along with its main theme, Fires and Phantoms also carries on the theme of its predecessor, Enter at Your Own Risk: Old Masters, New Voices, by mixing in some rather excellent stories by older writers like Edith Wharton and Ralph Adams Cram. One can only hope that the addition of masterworks by authors from previous literary eras will continue to be a hallmark of the series going forward, although their presence does have the unfortunate effect of highlighting the unevenness of the contemporary stories that make up the bulk of the anthology.

Following a short introduction by horror novelist Robert Dunbar extolling the genre’s lack of literary status as a virtue that has granted horror writers the freedom to explore taboo subjects long before it was considered safe to do so in mainstream fiction (and an even shorter foreword by Dr. Scully), Fires and Phantoms starts off with “Alone,” a short poem by Edgar Allan Poe that evokes a certain sense of otherness and isolation that should help readers get themselves into the proper mindset to enjoy the stories to come.

However, the mood set by Poe’s work is spoiled somewhat by the first piece of prose fiction in the collection, “When You Are Right” by Robbie Anderson. The setup of Anderson’s story is interesting enough – a policeman working the night shift waits in the car while his partner patronizes a creepy house of ill repute – but it reads like a rough outline, rushing ahead to its conclusion without pausing to give the reader much in the way of interesting detail or characterization. Thankfully, the next story in the anthology, “Time for One More Show” by local Eugene author B.E. Scully, gets things back on the right track with a much more interesting tale involving a lesbian stripper who becomes enthralled by a seductive mirror-bound apparition, but the difference in quality from one story to the next throughout Fire and Phantoms is stark enough that it may prove an insurmountable annoyance to some readers.

Another peculiarity that detracts somewhat from the collection is the inclusion of three stories – “A Decent Cup of Tea” by Michele Cacano, “In the End, He Dreams” by Michael Meeske, and “Inheritance” by Richard May – that read suspiciously like romance stories that were only submitted for consideration because they happened to have ghosts in them. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad stories, but their lovelorn tone would be more at home in a Harlequin Romance novel than a gothic horror anthology.

That said, Fires and Phantoms includes far more good stories than bad, and only one tale in the second category (Chad Stroup’s “Prickle the Ivories”) truly sinks to the level of unreadably awful. Along with B.E. Scully’s salacious tale, other contemporary gems here include T. Fox Dunham’s supernatural Civil War story “Last Dance in the Rain,” Vincent Waters’ macabre tale of a devout, troubled husband “Promises in the Dark, Whispers at Dawn,” and Andrew Wolter’s surprisingly enjoyable re-imagining of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” coyly entitled “A New Heart That Tells a Tale.”

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Edith Wharton

But as good as those modern stories are, the best ones in the entire anthology are the three oldest: Wharton’s compellingly understated “The Eyes,” Richard Hall’s ghostly trip through the history of LGBTQ literature “Country People” (which, fittingly enough, inspired the creation of this anthology), and the one story in the book I found genuinely disquieting on a visceral level, “In Kropfsberg Keep” by Ralph Adams Cram. Dr. Scully merits some applause for that last selection; Cram’s body of work as an architect may still be relatively well known, but his literary output has rather undeservedly fallen into obscurity over the years.

Again, its homosexual themes may put off some people, but the stories Dr. Scully has assembled here are by no means just for LGBTQ readers. It’s far from perfect (what anthology is?), but if you’re a fan of gothic horror, Fire and Phantoms does enough things right to justify picking up a copy on your next visit to the bookstore.

Book Review – Verland: The Transformation by B.E. Scully

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The cover artwork for Verland: The Transformation by B.E. Scully.
The cover artwork for Verland: The Transformation by B.E. Scully.

Verland: The Transformation, the debut novel by Eugene author B.E. Scully, is a welcome return to a time when vampire stories were actually about vampires.  And when I say vampires, I don’t mean brooding sex symbols who might enjoy a snifter of Type O every now and then when they aren’t busy romancing vapid teenage girls, but the vampires of old: superhuman, disquieting predators with an overpowering thirst for human blood.

The nominal protagonist of Scully’s story is Elle Bramasol, a true crime writer who ekes out a living on the mid-lists when she isn’t busy having conversations with her mother’s grave or hanging out with her two cats or policeman boyfriend.  That all changes one day when she gets a call informing her that famed Hollywood producer turned murderer Eliot Kingman has made a personal request for her to write a book about the events that led to his glitzy, high-profile trial and subsequent conviction.

However, Bramasol soon learns that Kingman’s case is the furthest thing from his mind.  During their first interview, he rambles on about the nature of life and grief, then tells her that he has found a loophole to mortality, a way around death itself.  When she inquires further, he directs her to visit his mansion, where his wife and his assistant give her a sheaf of translated pages from a book purporting to be a diary that begins during the Franco-Prussian War in the 1870s.

It’s at this point that the novel really comes into its own as the diary introduces us to Verland, a young Prussian soldier who is turned into a vampire by a mysterious medic after being left to die on the battlefield.  As Scully unfolds the vampire’s story through multiple series of diary entries, Verland soon supplants Bramasol as the de facto protagonist of the story; he is a fully-realized, complexly layered character, and his diary is the most interesting part of the entire novel by far.  In fact, the entries are so compelling that they begin to overshadow the rest of the book, and it won’t take long before readers will find themselves skimming through Bramasol’s investigations so they can get back to reading about Verland’s life story.

Portrait of B.E. Scully from her author page on Amazon.com.
Portrait of B.E. Scully from her author page on Amazon.com.

The passages dealing with Verland’s diary succeed as well as they do by never making the mistake of lingering for too long on any one subject.  By turns Verland is a wretch overridden with existential anguish, a terrifying predator who revels in his powers, a passive observer to important historical events and personages, a detached clinician who performs unsettling J.G. Ballard-style experiments on his own flesh, and an outsider who knows he must remain apart from humanity but can’t quite still his yearnings for the simple pleasure of social contact.  And no matter how far Scully pushes her titular antihero, his thoughts and actions always feel true to the character she has created.

One of the more fascinating themes running throughout the book is the constant juxtaposition of the vampire’s overriding monstrosity – i.e., the need to feed via murder, up close and personal – with the evils of human society in all their depersonalizing, depraved cruelty.  In a way, Verland’s simple animal urge to seek out prey paints him with a purity of purpose that somehow elevates his bloodlust above the far murkier motivations behind the predations of normal humans.

Verland’s passage through history also works to take the vampire mythos created in seminal horror novels like John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and carry it intact up to the present day, free of the glitterpires and other misty-eyed romantic trappings that make contemporary vampire fiction so unbearable to read.  The novel’s historical and literary references sometimes devolve into little more than rote name-dropping, and at times the scope of the story outstrips Scully’s ability to fully realize it, but that’s a small complaint.  It’s hard to fault an author for daring to reach for something just beyond their grasp instead of playing it safe and composing a lesser story.

So, while Verland: The Transformation doesn’t avoid the usual smattering of problems that seem to plague all debut novels, B.E. Scully nevertheless succeeds in writing an engaging, satisfying tale.  It may not be high literature, but it doesn’t need to be – it’s a straight-up vampire novel, and a damned good one at that.

Book Monster Vol. 12: More Horror

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Words by Kevin Baird, EDN

The other day I was thinking about the scariest book of all time. What is it? After much debate I decided it was a toss-up between “The Berenstain Bears and The Spooky Old Tree”, Alvin Schwartz’s “Scary Stories” series, and the first Goosebumps I ever read, which was “You Can’t Scare Me.” Of course none of these books would scare an adult (maybe “Scary Stories” would), but as a child I was gullible, and my vivid imagination was still unchecked by science. As an adult I still love the horror genre. It’s gateway of nostalgia that opens up my imagination to frightening ideas and possibilities and never disappoints. So without further delay I give you, my readers—more horror.

A few months ago I contributed $1.00 to a Kickstarter for Nightmare Magazine, which was created by John Joseph Adams (whom you may remember from my last column); it features horror writing and horror art. This month Nightmare Magazine launched its first issue. You can read a couple of the stories without purchase on their website, and e-book issues cost $2.99, and they also have lifetime subscriptions for $500.   Unfortunately for me the mag is only formatted for the Kindle, Kobo, and the Nook (I have neither, I am archaic). Next time I support a Kickstarter I’ll be doing a little more research.

If you are wondering about witches look no further than “Malleus Maleficarum” or “The Hammer of Witches”. Although the book is over 600-years old, and saying the book is outdated is an understatement it’s still an important piece of horror literature. Included in this book are methods for detecting and destroying witches. This book was a propeller for the proliferation witch accusations throughout the centuries. Since it was written so long ago you’ll have to read a translation from latin. You can pick up an e-book version for as low as $1.00.

 

Clive Barker, who you may know as the writer and director of the movie Hellraiser, is also a prolific horror writer. “The Books of Blood” is a dreadful collection of stories that explore the full spectrum of the senses and emotions through both humans and evil creatures. Included in this book is “The Midnight Meat Train,” which was adapted into a film in 2008. Clive Barker is a master of creating gritty scenes, hidden dimensions of evil, and original creatures.

 

“Poems Bewitched and Haunted” is an anthology of spooky poems. Some of these poems are clever and will leave have you cackling in your chair while others will get your imagination running wild. It features well known poets such as Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, and plenty of poets I’ve never heard (their poems are great too). This book is part of the everyman’s pocket library so it comes in a compact hardcover with a built in bookmark.

What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read? Do you have something to say about books? The Book Monster wants to know. You can email him at [email protected] Be sure to share The Book Monster with your friends on Facebook.